After beating the formerly undefeated Arizona Cardinals 17-3 on Thursday night, the St. Louis Rams are now over .500 for the first time in 93 games, dating back to Nov. 4, 2006. Will this last? Of course not -- in large part because the Rams need to add more talent on the offensive line. That said, St. Louis fans need to enjoy the first steps of the rebuilding project, as there are signs of a bright future.
The most important process in any rebuilding project: Clearly laying the foundation for sustained success in the first few months. Jeff Fisher came to St Louis with a direct plan for success -- not hoping or waiting to see how things develop, but diving right in with his overall philosophy. Nothing was put on hold, as Fisher and general manager Les Snead immediately fixed as many problems as they could through free agency and the 2012 NFL Draft.
Fisher's overall philosophy begins with winning games through his defensive front. This was always evident in Fisher's days with the Tennessee Titans, and it was clear on Thursday night in St. Louis. Fueled by an enthusiastic home crowd -- Fisher's teams are always difficult to play on their home field -- the Rams' defensive front completely took over the game. St. Louis sacked Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb nine times, giving the team 17 sacks in the past two weeks. In addition, the Rams never allowed Arizona to get anything going on the ground. With this kind of defensive dominance up front, all St. Louis had to do was avoid miscues that would give the Cardinals a short field or an easy score, and the game would be there for the taking. Which leads us to the next hallmark of Jeff Fisher teams: No stupid mistakes.
Fisher forces opponents to beat his team, not allowing his team to beat itself. Bottom line: More games in the NFL are lost than won. The Cards' streak had to come to an end at some point; with a lackluster offensive line and no ground game, Arizona had been winning by making plays on defense and in the kicking game. For the first time all season, the Cardinals encountered a team that just refused to make fatal mistakes. Even though the Rams had eight possessions of five plays or less, they only turned the ball over once -- and made two of their drives count for touchdowns.
Lastly, Fisher manages the game in a style that gives his team a chance to win in the fourth quarter. In the NFL, if you routinely keep games close into the final period, you always have a chance to make a couple plays at critical points and win. Clearly this has been the Rams' formula.
These are the tenets of a promising rebuilding project. This team still has a ways to go, starting with an offense that clearly lacks explosiveness. This is where all of those draft picks acquired from the Washington Redskins in March come into play. As the Rams add more talent -- especially across the O-line -- they will be able to take more chances on offense. But not too many chances. Remember, Jeff Fisher's teams don't beat themselves.
Ten thoughts around the NFL
1) The Miami Dolphins clearly look like a much better team in 2012, especially on defense, where coordinator Kevin Coyle has done a great job of utilizing his overall talent. Coyle was with the Cincinnati Bengals last season and should know how to deal with their offense on Sunday. The Fins have been close the past two weeks, and easily could be 3-1 if they were able to make plays in the fourth quarter. Given Coyle's familiarity with this week's foe, win No. 2 could come in Cincy.
2) Dan Koppen will return to Foxborough this weekend as a member of the Denver Broncos. Koppen's immense knowledge of the New England Patriots' pass-protection system and calls at the line of scrimmage will force the Pats to make many changes to their audible system. New England must make sure communication is sound. As for Koppen, he has to prove he can still be an effective player; as much as he knows about the Pats, the Pats also know him well as a player. Expect a big defensive lineman to be over Koppen all game.
3) The Kansas City Chiefs have already paid Matt Cassel $40.5 million over the first three years of a six-year deal. What's left on the deal? Modest base salaries for a starting quarterback -- if in fact Cassel remains a starter. If the Chiefs move on from Cassel after the season, the cap hit will not be significant. Therefore, they can make the move and still have plenty of money left over. At this point in his career, Cassel has to prove he can lead the team -- not have to be dependent on others to carry him. The Chiefs were a predominantly running team in Cassel's finest campaign (2010). Having to throw the ball to win this season, Cassel has not proven he can carry the load. In Year 4 of the Chiefs' rebuilding program, they still need a quarterback -- which is exactly where they did not want to be.
4) When teams blitz a quarterback, they either make him look bad, or they make themselves look bad. This year's top five teams against the blitz: Redskins, Bills, Patriots, Bengals and Falcons. The bottom five: Seahawks, Jets, Chargers, Browns and Dolphins. Miami leads the league with five interceptions when facing pressure.
5) The Cleveland Browns and New Orleans Saints are the only winless teams remaining in the NFL. But based on my film evaluations, it appears Cleveland and Jacksonville will be competing for the first overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Both look like 3-4 win teams, which could result in the top pick. It will be very interesting if the Jaguars end up with the top pick. Would they make a change at quarterback just two years after investing the 10th overall pick in Blaine Gabbert? Is Gabbert their long-range solution? Based on his play this summer, many thought he just might be. But after four weeks, he shows the same flaws that marred his rookie year: too many check downs, too quick to get rid of the ball and no playmaking skills. His passer rating of 83.7 is much higher than last year's mark (65.4), as is his completion percentage (55.8, up from 50.8 in 2011). But his yards-per-attempt average is still below 6.0, which is not going to get it done.
6) The Carolina Panthers hoped to be better on defense this year, but that has not been the case. They cannot stop the run, they lack a pass rush and their safety play is below average. Carolina has been outscored in the first quarter 37-14. Thus, the Panthers are always playing from behind, making it hard for the offense to control the game. The Panthers are just going to have to outscore teams, as it does not appear that they will ever be able to shut down a good offense with their current defensive talent base.
7) Speaking of talent base ... While the New York Jets were chasing Nnamdi Asomugha in free agency last year, they lowered the contracts for Bart Scott and Calvin Pace in 2011, guaranteeing their salaries for 2012. That move is haunting them now, as neither guy is playing well. The Jets' defensive front is a shell of what it used to be; Sione Pouha and Mike DeVito are not playing to past levels, and I keep waiting for Muhammad Wilkerson to make a play and demonstrate this Richard Seymour talent that head coach Rex Ryan has glowingly talked about.
8) First-half point differential is a statistic that always piques my interest at the quarter mark of the season. Your current leaders: Texans, Falcons, Bengals and Chargers. The bottom five: Chiefs, Jaguars, Lions, Titans and Panthers. The key to football today is not establishing the run or pass, but rather the lead.
9) The Eagles-Steelers game is a huge game for the Pittsburgh defense. This will help determine if age has really set in on the unit, or if having Troy Polamalu and James Harrison back will make all the difference. Through three games, the Steelers look slow, with no ability to rush the passer. What has to be most alarming aspect is they cannot stop the run, allowing 4.3 yards per carry. This is very uncharacteristic of a Steeler defense. The one player Pittsburgh just can't seem to replace? Aaron Smith. He was really a dominant force inside.
10) I want to wish my friend Chuck Pagano a speedy recovery and offer all my prayers as he battles this horrible disease. Chuck and I worked together on the Oakland Raiders and he is one of the best people I have had the honor to work with. Smart, dedicated, hard working and just an incredibly likeable person. Chuck will attack this problem with complete faith and support from all the people that know and love him. We are all here for you, Chuck. Get well soon.
Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi.